Essay: Dirty Secrets – Sexuality and Love in ‘The First Bad Man’, ‘I Love Dick’ and ‘A Room of One’s Own’

My sister wrote this essay for an entrance exam.  I loved it, and so stole it to record here.

The protagonist of Miranda July’s novel, The First Bad Man – Cheryl Glickman – is, quite frankly, weird.  Viewing her from a readerly distance – her solitariness, her eccentricities, her need for order and control in the smallest detail of her domestic life (at odds with her haplessness and what seems to be only the most tenuous hold on order in the larger sense) – one cannot help but conclude that if we knew her we wouldn’t feel her to be “normal”.  The fact that she is, and becomes through the unlikeliest of love stories, horrifyingly relatable is at the heart of the book’s humanity.

Cheryl is loner with a rich fantasy life.  She indulges in sexual obsessions with unavailable men:

Phillip was with them.  ‘Greetings’ said Carl.  Phillip was wearing a gorgeous wine-colored sweater.  My breath thinned.  I always had to resist the urge to go to him like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes.” (July, 2015, p.12)

She harbours a lifelong belief that “her child” exists and is embodied through babies unrelated to her:

“He cooed like a mournful dove and smiled up at me with the warmth of total recognition.  I keep getting born to the wrong people, he said.  I nodded regretfully.  I know.” (July, 2015, p.13). 

She enters a pseudo-sexual, physically aggressive, relationship with a young woman:

She could see I’d gotten all geared up – a forty-three-year-old woman in a blouse, ready to brawl” (July, 2015, p.57)

With whom she later has a sexual relationship of sorts, and with whom she also co-parents a child who is not biologically hers.

Cheryl is outside of most of our experience of normality but she is, in her proneness to self-delusion, her inconsistency, her odd peccadillos, her capacity for her sense of order to be overpowered by her experience of love (both sexual and parental), nonetheless, like us.  July leaves us in no doubt that we are expected to reach just that conclusion: that this odd person, Cheryl, is a version of us, and Cheryl, at several points in the narrative, directly draws our attention to that fact:

“It doesn’t have a name – I just call it my system.  Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes.  Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and is seems impossible to even clean a fork.  So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person.  So they stop bathing.  Which makes it hard to leave the house.  The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed.  We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment.” (July, 2015, p.21)

Chris Kraus’, I Love Dick performs a similar trick but, based on external markers at least, from the opposite end of the intellectual and social spectrum.  The “fictional” Chris Kraus at centre of the narrative is successful.  She is in a sound marriage with an intellectual man, she is fiercely clever (although too insecure to call herself intellectual), frequently attempting to use her cleverness as a tool of seduction.  She is, generally speaking, good at life.  The story of Chris’ obsession with a man (Dick), created through a single meeting but which becomes a moment that changes her marriage and the direction of her life, is something that she does not do thoughtlessly. Indeed, she analyses, thinks, justifies, and thinks some more about what her feelings and actions really mean.  However, for all of the apparent rationality and intellectualisation, her actions are fundamentally illogical:

“Sylvere [her husband], a European intellectual who teaches Proust, is skilled in the analysis of love’s minutiae.  But how long can anyone continue to analyse a single evening and a 3-minute call … Chris has turned into a jumpy bundle of emotions, sexually aroused for the first time in seven years … Do married couples usually collaborate on billets doux?  If Sylvere and Chris were not so militantly opposed to psychoanalysis, they might’ve seen this as a turning point.” (Kraus, 2006, p.25)

Chris, to the average reader, is also outside of the majority of our experiences: in the glamour and intellectual rigor of her life; in her career as an experimental film-maker and in her relationship (Chris’ husband is complicit, at least at first, in his wife’s pursuit of another man).  But she is, in her ability to project what she wants to see in the object of her desire, in her proneness to obsession, in her illogical actions, in her capacity for her sense to be overpowered by her experience of love, nonetheless, like us.

“Dear Dick, I guess it’s been a case of infatuation.  Funny I haven’t thought to use that word before.  You are the fourth and a half person … I’ve been infatuated with since living with Sylvere.  Mostly this infatuation-energy is about wanting to know someone.” (Kraus, 2006, p.54)

While July and Kraus’ novels are very different from one another, what they have in common is that they are both love stories outside of the conventional spectrum that we understand to be “love” and sexual expression.  It could be argued that the success of each is the extent to which they allow the reader to explore their own sense that they too exist outside of normality, and in doing so, exposing our ultimate dirty secret: that we, despite external appearances, probably fear that we are inclined to craziness in respect of love and sex.  As the philosopher, Alain de Botton has written:

“It is rare to get through this life without feeling …. That we are somehow a bit odd about sex.  It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual.” (de Botton, 2012, p.3)

Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own is a manifesto, a call for freedom from the (self-imposed) prison that love and sex can be at times; a freedom from the all-consuming obsessions of the likes of Cheryl and Chris.  Woolf expresses this through the promotion of asexuality.  Unlikely as it might appear on first reading, both July and Krauss can be seen as successors of Woolf.  The Bloomsbury Group, and Woolf’s beliefs purport that gender, or at least the expression of traditionally gendered interactions between the sexes, was something retrograde, and that asexual relationships were the utopian ideal to be aspired to:

“… they were all marvellously capable of love, … lust in their world was a joyful emotion, … jealousy and Domination were remarkably sparse.” (Heilbrun quoted by Showalter in Eagleton p25)

This vision of androgyny was intended to be understood as a freeing concept, a way of avoiding the traditional shackles of contemporary womanhood in a society which did not understand or allow the real female voice a place in art or serious literature:  

“Within this milieu, we are to understand, Virginia Woolf was free to develop both sides of her nature, both male and female, and to create the appropriate kind of novel for the expression of her androgynous vision.” (Showalter in Eagleton, p.25) 

However, the concept was, ultimately, neither a solution nor truly liberating, but a logical reaction; a manner in which a space for the female voice could be created, a way of trying to create a metaphorical “room” for herself.

“The androgynous mind is, finally, a utopian projection of the ideal artist: calm, stable, unimpeded by consciousness of sex.  Woolf meant it to be a luminous and fulfilling idea; but, like other utopian projections, her vision is inhuman.” (Showalter in Eagleton, pp.30-31)

Furthermore, it necessarily required the denial of the reality of her womanhood, rather than a celebration of it and as such was ultimately a withdrawal from, as much as a confrontation of, hegemonic ideals of gender roles:

“Androgyny was the myth that helped her evade confrontation with her own painful femaleness and enabled her to choke and repress her anger and ambition.” (Showalter in Eagleton, p.25)

It could be argued that Woolf, and particularly her manifesto as expressed in A Room of One’s Own, is a predecessor of both July and Kraus.  Not through drawing parallels with any of Woolf’s characters, or necessarily with her position on androgyny but because, contextually what Woolf was explicitly calling for in A Room of One’s Own, and what she was ultimately attempting to do through her wider writing, was to find a way to express and to draw out something that was at the time unacceptable.

To be more explicit, the path I would chase from Woolf through to July and Kraus is the development of conventional perceptions of female sexuality: from Woolf’s rejection of sexuality as a way to do battle against an era where women were sexually and generally expected to be submissive; via, later the acceptance of women’s expression of sexuality within agreeable parameters – marriage particularly; to mass-market versions of acceptable female sexuality – usually homogenised, hyper-sexuality; to what we see in July and Kraus, which I would argue is the most honest version.  In both novels we see expression of the least attractive – the dirtiest – facets of female, and human, sexual desire.

Woolf attempted to claim space for herself, and her gender, by distancing herself from conventionality which dictated a sexually, intellectually and politically submissive role for women through the means of A Room of One’s Own which, by its very existence metaphorically as well as plainly said, it is okay for you, reader, to want the freedom that I describe, and to acknowledge the desire for freedom at all, because I do and I have done it.

Woolf wrote in a context where it was considered ugly, unattractive, immoral even, for a woman to feel entitled to, let alone demand anything for herself in her own right.  The cry of ‘feminist’ in Woolf’s time, was a term of abuse, a howl of disapproval of perceived rejection of men (rather than rejection of patriarchy).  As Woolf herself points out, the power and attraction that the concept of woman holds for men is not in question, indeed literary versions of women (in contrast to the reality for the vast majority) are hugely varied and often both powerful and bewitching.  What is unacceptable and therefore unattractive is to dare to have an opinion particularly about men:

“Z, most humane, most modest of men, (took) up from book by Rebecca West, and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘the arrant feminist!  She says that men are snobs!’ … it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.” (Woolf, 1929, p.30) 

Both Kraus and July claim a similar space, 85 years later, by exploring some ugly, and unattractive, facets of female character and of female desire.  Of course the mode of expression, what sexuality and gendered relationships look, like have moved on immeasurably over the intervening period, along with what women chose to articulate in the novelistic form.  All three books are ultimately working within (and against) the context of a deep societal expectation that women behave “attractively” whatever the popular definition of attractive is at that time.

In, The First Bad Man, the deep discomfort we feel towards Cheryl Glickman with her awkward manner, and the rawness of her (although confused) desire for Clee, is unattractive but nonetheless recognisable.  In I Love Dick, we wince for Chris as she exposes her innermost craziness to both Dick but also more fully to her husband – but who could say they have never been more enchanted by a person than is seemly?

The protests in July and Kraus’ works are less direct, less directly political, less polemic and so far less utopian than Woolf’s concept of androgyny.  They are by dint of their time, more free to be direct about rather than avoiding matters of gender and sex.  Woolf is high-minded and conceptual in her consideration of the impulses behind interactions between the genders, the role of interior female sexual desire doesn’t get considered, but crushed.  One thing that we clearly see though, in the contrasts between the protagonists in Kraus and July’s works, is that high-mindedness doesn’t act as a vaccine (as it’s wasn’t for Woolf herself in her personal life either).  The hyper-conscious, analytical thinking Kraus couldn’t be more different to the stumbling, unquestioning, Cheryl, but as it turns out intellectualisation doesn’t make one immune to craziness in matters of love and sex.

Both July and Kraus’ novels are triumphant because they are more realistic representations.  They are able to be real because they are free; they are free to be real because of the more direct protests of their predecessors like Woolf; they are free to acknowledge sexuality in some of its dark and dirty ways, and us as readers, we are consoled for it.  De Botton again:

“Yet though we cannot expect books to dissolve away our problems, they can still provide opportunities for us to discharge our sadness and discover a communal confirmation of our woes.  Books retain a role in offering us consoling reminders that we are not alone with the humiliating and peculiar difficulties imposed by our unavoidable possession of a sex drive.” (de Botton, 2012, p.9)



Essay: Girls, Men and Feminists

There recently swelled around me a critical mass of thoughts, feelings, images, songs and words about what it is like to be a woman; presenting me with problems, as well as some new tools.  It was interesting to be made to think (more so than I already do) about this issue through a mixture of autobiography, film, song and essay, none of which I chose for myself, but all of which seemed to find me at the same time.

Gone Girl

I picked up the film version of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same title (she also wrote the screenplay) in the local library, as it sounded vaguely familiar.  Although it didn’t seem like the kind of film I would usually watch, something compelled me to take it.  The film is itself really compelling, right from the start, but what really stayed with me were lines like these:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.

Whether the character Amy Dunne – whose words these are – is a feminist hero, or if the whole treatment of her as a character is misogynistic, is a polemic issue.  The quote above seems to support both viewpoints simultaneously, so I guess ultimately it depends whether you see the vase or the two faces in the image.  I didn’t know that there was quite a lot of debate around both the novel and the film until I started to write about it, but what I personally was left with after watching, was anger: anger which came from recognition.

Two faces or a Vase?
Two faces or a Vase?

The following day – perhaps in the same way that if you suddenly start having to use crutches, you start to notice people with crutches everywhere around you – I became hyper-aware of casual sexism, especially in my office.  My desk sits between two 20-something men who spend a good part of their working day “rating” every female in office.  For those women whom they do not consider sufficiently sexually attractive to sleep with of their own free will, they decide a price which they would accept in order to have sex with her.  The language of the office is English, and they have these conversations in Spanish, perhaps in order to disguise it a little, and (I assume for sociolinguistic reasons) for me this does usually take the edge off, that and headphones.

The alliance of myself with headphones and language comes down to the fact that, in all honestly – and despite my 35 years – I felt unequipped to deal with the situation (should I talk to my boss, should I take them up on their comments, both?), in part because of being in what should be a neutral environment, the work place, but not least because I also feel somewhat complicit.  I felt complicit – and was/am – because it makes my working life much easier to ignore them and to an extent to play along, like the Cool Girl of Flynn’s description.  I take responsibility for that, however I’m also aware of the decades, the millenia, that have come before this particular situation and that have led me – and countless other women – to feel unable to express themselves and to address just such situations.

Girl in a Band

Because of an ongoing Patti Smith obsession which my sister’s boyfriend and I share, after he read this autobiography by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, he encouraged me to read it also.  At the same time another good friend was reading it too.   Interestingly, I didn’t know this until she sent me an uncharacteristically angry response to an email regarding a situation about a boy.  She then followed up a little later with, “I’m sorry, I’m feeling really angry.  I just read the Kim Gordon autobiography”.  This was intriguing enough for me to decide to read this.

The first thing that I noticed was her voice which, unlike my stuttering one, is clear, cool and unafraid.  She says the things I’m too scared to say out-loud about men, but nonetheless certainly feel.  The tagline says “a memoir” and I guess in the same way that I feel I can have any opinion I like about any book I like here on this blog is because it is a diary, it is personal.  In the same way Gordon’s opinions about the men she has encountered in her life are her own experiences, her own opinions and if they resonate with the reader, then they resonate with the reader, and so in a sense that cannot be polemic, generalising, ostracising.  That isn’t to say that they can’t be countered, or discussed, but similarly can they be dismissed either.  This quote is a good example:

Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people.

She is right, I absolutely do know what she is talking about and although it can’t perhaps be empirically proved, I live this.  This is one reason why I feel unequipped to take on my male colleagues’ sexism, for example.

Whilst reading Girl in a Band, International Women’s Day fell.  Where I work, Corporate Social Responsibility had organised some talks, including one by an NGO that supports women who have been trafficked into prostitution in Spain.  It was an inspiring and depressing talk.  Two things that the speaker said really stayed with me: one, that in the capitalist world, market forces have taken rule where previously democracy and universal human rights held more sway.  He went on to say that anything can be bought or sold these day, people included.  The second thing came at the end of the talk, when a member of the audience asked what we could do, day-to-day, to help combat the issue of trafficking.  The speaker said the most important thing we could do was speak up.  Not just to raise awareness around the particular issue that the NGO worked in – that of trafficking women into prostitution – but around patriarchy in general, as a culture that does not value women, or at worse, values then as mercantile objects only, is the kind of culture that creates these situations in the first place.  Which once again reminded me, as I walked slowly back to my desk, of the attitudes of, and my lack of response to, my male colleagues.

Men Explain Things to Me

The same week that I watched Gone Girl, started reading Girl in a Band and attended that talk at work, my sister had just finished this book – and without knowing I was looking for ideas, input – gave it to me to read.

The book in its entirety is brilliant; very, very clever, beautifully and succinctly written, and ‘sugarshit sharp’ (to quote Kim Gordon quoting Julie Cafritz).  The title essay had so much synergy with what I had just read, watched and listened to, that on one hand it was shocking to think that it could all be a such a perfect coincidence, until one realises that there is no coincidence about it: these writers, film-makers and musicians are war correspondents, as Silnot writes in her essay ‘The Longest War’:

So many men murder their partners and their former partners that we [in the USA] have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year – meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties though no one declares a war on that particular kind of terror … If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs.  If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or males roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.

This issue finds me, and continues to find me because it is everywhere: it is our society’s white noise, something which is well demonstrated in the title essay of Solnit’s book.  The essay recounts the time she was lectured to on the subject of a very well received book about Eadweard Muybridge.  The deliverer of the lecture had to be told four times before it sunk in, that he was lecturing on this subject to the author of the same book he was lecturing her on.  This sense of entitlement is pandemic:

Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.  Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.


…this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces nearly every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence.

And negative:

Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.

(By this point I was spinning in my head the Sonic Youth song ‘100%’ (well, it is catchy), and this lyric (sung by Thurston Moore) which, for all it’s extremity, hit a certain spot: “I’ve been around the world a million times, and all you men are slime.”  However, luckily for me, the reader, the brilliant Solnit had a comforting reminder: “Increasingly men are becoming good allies – and there always have been some.  Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy.” Both politically, and personally: “Let me just say that my life is well sprinkled with lovely men … of whom it could be said – like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr Pelen’s class on Chaucer – “gladly would he learn and gladly teach”  This is true for my own life also)

We Should All Be Feminists

Toward the end of this journey, I took an actual physical journey to visit my parents.  In the afternoon after my arrival, I sat with my Mum in the sun with Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, as my Mum picked up and read this book.  She had finished it in about 15 minutes and spent a good part of that time laughing.  She was laughing with the author, who had had to (with her tongue in cheek) start out describing herself as a ‘Happy Feminist’ and ended up at a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men’, in order to make her feminism, her belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, acceptable socially.

Just as Gordon wrote of her experiences as a girl in a band, Adichie writes of her experiences as a woman in the United States and in Nigeria, and it seems (who knew?) that gender is universal.  Gender issues affect us all, not matter where we are, what gender we inhabit, or how our lives are shaped.  Furthermore, it appears that there are certain conditions which favour the growth of inequality and injustice between the sexes, between human beings.  Number one: girls and women are taught, above all, to please, to be liked:

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them.  But the reverse is not the case.  We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable.

And to be silent:

We teach girls shame.  Close your legs.  Cover yourself.  We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something.  And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire.  Who silence themselves.  Who cannot say what they truly think.  Who have turned pretence into an art form.

The one, clearly it seems, going along with the other.

The conclusions I have drawn from this journey are the following: that feminism is not just for and about women, it is about justice, which ultimately – and limitlessly – benefits all humankind.  As Solnit so eloquently puts it:

Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone.  The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.

And so this is all of our responsibility to fight for:

It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.

Finally, it is okay – and right – that we should be angry, but we should also remain hopeful, Adichie:

I am angry.  We should all be angry.  Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.  But I am also hopeful. because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.

The last word on this, for me, goes to Solnit:

It takes time.  There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in.  Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for.

This analogy echoes my own road, my own journey over the last few weeks and similarly I feel that I have made my own personal great leap forward, unbidden, unexpected but all the more necessary for it.


‘The Third Man’ by Graham Green (1950)

Having always avoided The Book Club and The Reading Group whilst living in the UK (reading for me has always been so personal that the idea of discussing something that is so personal with a group of people had never appealed to me – it would feel more like a support group or something, which I guess might be part of the appeal), somehow I ended up signing up for, and looking forward to, one here in Madrid.  A book club in another language felt like a totally different prospect.  Perhaps the restrictions on what you can actually say due to the second language factor makes it more appealing than doing it in an native language, where fear of either going off on a tangent, or having to listen to one, is reduced.  Or maybe it is the reverse: talking about something with which you are familiar (the language of literature and of criticism) and with which you have an affinity with makes it easier to do in a second language than other things are in a second language.  For example, this summer my Dad was visiting me and needed some very specific plumping parts to fix the toilet.  When we got into the shop I realised that I had no idea what to say, the nouns the vocabulary for toilet parts are things I barely have in English, let alone in Spanish.  Either way, the book that was up this month was Graham Green’s novella, The Third Man, so I decided to read it in the original English.   This won me admiration from the group and I was asked to repeat his name many times in my ‘accent’ to the delight of everyone.  An English accent always sounds kind of ugly to me, so it was nice to feel exotic for 30 seconds of my life.

What I particularly liked about preparing for the meet-up was having to read closely, take notes and think about the novella critically.  I haven’t done that for a while: reading for a purpose and for a deadline.  The findings of my close reading I’m sure are very obvious, especially to those who know the film or the rationale behind the book, but here they are all the same:

Multiple Personalities:

A very well developed theme in the novella: almost all the main characters are not what they seem, or perhaps it is better to say, they are not only what they seem.  For example:

  • Rollo Martins

Rollo Martins – the novel’s protagonist – actually comprises of two people: Rollo and Martins.  They both have opposing personalities, Rollo being impulsive and Martins methodical.  During the investigation into Harry Lime’s death, they fight against, and within, each other for control of Rollo Martins the whole.  In addition, in his profession as a writer of pulp fiction westerns, Rollo Martins has a pseudonym called Buck Dexter – his third personality, and even his pseudonym has a further extension in Benjamin Dexter, another writer with a very different pedigree to Buck and for whom the British Council official in Vienna confuses Buck Dexter (Rollo Martins).  The idea of Rollo Martins and the other characters’ multiple personalities – their shadow selves – can perhaps be summarised in this lovely quote from Rollo Martins:

“I stood there at the curtains, waiting to pull them, looking out.  I couldn’t see anything but my own face, looking back into the room.”

It is at times like these that one can feel the influence of film noir in the writing.  This scene from the quote can easily be imagined in a film noir setting and the whole novella exudes this atmosphere.  This is something that I hadn’t thought of before the book club meeting: the idea that the story was written to be made into a script instead of the more common situation where an existing book is turned into a script/film.  Interestingly Greene preferred the film, which kind of makes sense, as this is what usually happens when books are turned into films, the book – the original – is considered the better.

  • Harry Lime

It seems with Harry Lime that everyone who knows him has their own idea of who he is.  As Calloway muses to himself:

‘”[Rollo] I don’t suppose anyone knows Harry the way I do,” and I thought of the thick file of agents’ reports in my office, each claiming the same thing.’

Moreover, Lime lives a double life in a more practical, obvious sense through his work as a trafficker and once Rollo Martins learns the truth about Harry’s double life, he begins to refer to him as ‘Harry’ when he wants to refer to his old friend and ‘Lime’ when he wants to refer to the criminal he has become.  Additionally, Harry is the ‘Third Man’ referred to in the novel’s title, the shadow being chased by Rollo Martins through Vienna and Harry’s faking of his own death gives another branch to his multiple personality in that he exists in the living world and also in the Other world.

  • Calloway, Kurtz and Anna

These three characters are also multi-faceted.  Calloway is referred to by Rollo wrongly as ‘Callaghan’ – an Irish surname – for the first half of the novella and Calloway describes himself as a ‘policeman in a colonal’s uniform’.  Kurtz wears a toupee, although he has a full head of hair.  Rollo says that: “There must be something phoney about a man who won’t accept baldness gracefully.”  Giving him a double ‘phoniness’ as he isn’t bald at all.  Rollo Martins also says of Kurtz’s face that: “He had one of those faces too where the lines have been put in carefully, like make-up, in the right places”.  Anna, in turn, is Hungarian pretending to Austrian and living in the British zone of Vienna.

Multiple Worlds:

In addition to the multiple personalities of the characters, the world they inhabit is also multifarious and constantly shifting.

  • Vienna

The Vienna of the novella was divided after WW2 into four parts, four countries effectively: Great Britian, France, the United States and Russia, which gives it a multiple identity in a practical sense.  However, there is a fifth world, a fifth dimension, in the sewers underneath the city: the underworld where all the trafficking takes place.  The narrator, Calloway, calls our attention to this towards the climax of the novella, when Harry Lime is being pursued through the sewer system.  He says: “What a strange world unknown to most of us lies under our feet: we live above a cavernous land of waterfalls and rushing rivers, where tides ebb and flow as in the world above.”

  • Worlds within other worlds

Perhaps the apotheosis of the novella’s multiple-personalitied protagonists and the ever moving multiple worlds they inhabit comes when Rollo Martins, acting as Buck Dexter, acting as Benjamin Dexter, in the talk he has wrongly been invited to by the British Council, is asked by an audience member, who believes he is Benjamin Dexter, whether he is working on anything new and what the title is.  Rollo/Martins/Buck/Benjamin answer ‘yes’ and that it is called ‘The Third Man’.  Which is to say that the work of fiction being pretended to be worked on doesn’t exist, as Rollo Martins is Buck Dexter, not Benjamin Dexter.  However, the name is drawn out of him because of the experience he is living in Vienna in that moment; looking for Harry and trying to unravel the mystery of the third man seen at the moment Harry ‘died’.  So in this sense, the fiction of a fiction has a reality based in the fictional reality of Rollo Martins’ world.  A further layer is added when we consider that ‘The Third Man’ is the name Greene gave the the novella, making it ‘real’ in the sense of an existing work of fiction, which brings it full circle back to the fake Benjamin Dexter and his questioner.  Perhaps Benjamin Dexter is also Greene’s alter ego, written in to parody himself.  Indeed, Benjamin Dexter is described as well-respected and a master of style, but slightly ‘old-maidish’ and overly interested in religion.  These kinds of descriptions/criticism could possibly have been directed at and experienced by Greene, and certainly the staid atmosphere and the routine of the book tour must have been familiar to him.

All this reminds me of University and first being introduced to postmodernism, after which I have never been to stop seeing ‘stories within stories’ in everything.  That could be why I liked this novella so much.


Carmen, the organiser of the meeting, was interested (she is Spanish) in the British writer’s characterisation of Americans.  She thought Greene’s treatment of the American character Cooler and the presence of the American army in Vienna in this era was all pretty standard of the attitude of the British to North America, then and now.  I’m not sure whether she is right or not, perhaps it is harder to judge from the inside, but here is what Greene said about it:

“The Englishman who objects to Americans in general usually carries in his minds’ eye just such an exception as Cooler: a man with tousled grey hair and a worried kindly face and long-sighted eyes, the kind of humanitarian who turns up in a typhus epidemic or a world war or a Chinese famine long before his countrymen have discovered the place in an atlas.”

Another comment Carmen made that I hadn’t thought about was the fact that war makes everyones’ morals questionable.  The motivations for war itself and the subsequent struggle to survive pulls into question what is right and wrong at a personal and a political level.  Therefore we are all Harry Lime to an extent and like Lime himself says, governments don’t ‘think in terms of human beings’, which in a sense at once degrades and excuses us all.

Unfortunately I have started a new job with a new timetable which means I won’t be able to go to that particular book club again, but it was good, I enjoyed it, I recommend it.

‘Shame’ / ‘Vergüenza’ by Salman Rushdie (1983)

I have recently started volunteering in a bookshop here in Madrid.  The bookshop belongs to an NGO whose goal is to break the cycle of poverty through education.  One of the ways they do this is by having a bookshop where you only pay what you can afford for the books, thereby making access to education easier and more affordable.  It is a lovely bookshop and I am really happy to have found it.

One of the bookshop activities is to produce book reviews.  I am not so used to the more straightforward kind of book review, preferring my own ‘diary’ method which rarely makes reference to any thing useful about the book, such as theme or plot, but having just finished Salman Rushdie’s Shame in Spanish, I decided I would submit a review.  It has been published: here

And here it is:


Vergüenza es la tercera novela escrita por el autor británico-indio, Salman Rushdie. Este libro se publicó en 1983, con anterioridad a la aparición de la novela Los Versos Satánicos (y antes de que una fatwa fuera emitida a Rushdie) y dos años después de que hubiera ganado el premio Booker con su obra, Los Hijos de la Medianoche.

La novela trata de las vidas entrelazadas de Iskander Harappa (una versión novelada de Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) y del General Raza Hyder (una version novelada de General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq) y su relación a lo largo de sus vidas. La historia transcurre en una ciudad denominada “Q” que se supone es una versión ficticia de Quetta, Pakistán.

Como la mayoría de las obras de Rushdie, la novela se escribe en un estilo que mezcla el realismo mágico con la ficción histórica. Es una mezcla que le interesa mucho a Rushdie debido a su doble herencia, como dice en la propia novela: “En cuanto a mí: yo también, como todos los emigrantes, soy un forjador de fantasías. Construyo países imaginarios y trato de imponerlos sobre los que existen.”

El tema principal de la novela es la idea de que la violencia es algo que da a luz a la vergüenza ya sea en un sentido politico o dentro de una familia. Los conceptos de ‘vergüenza’ y ‘desvergüenza‘ se examinan a través de los personajes de la novela, junto con los conceptos de verdad, autenticidad y  herencia. Aquellos tres temas se repiten en sus obras en general y Rushdie se preocupa por las conexiones, las interrupciones y migraciones entre civilizaciones de Oriente y Occidente.

Sobre todo, Rushdie desarrolla estos temas por su estilo y su uso del idioma: juega con el lenguaje, le gusta idear nuevas palabras y explorar los huecos entre las lenguas donde las palabras no existen. Una cita de la novela Vergüenza enseña esta idea muy bien:

“Para conocer a una sociedad, echad una ojeada a sus palabras intraducibles.”

Aunque el estilo de los dos autores es muy diferente, hay algo de Nabokov en el uso del lenguaje de Rushdie y en la idea de que se puede cambiar el mundo alrededor de nosotros si se cambian las palabras que usamos para describirlo. Por eso, si los idiomas te interesan, entonces la novela Vergüenza te interesará también.

En mi opinión, sobre todo, Rushdie es un fenomenal narrador y cualquiera de sus libros siempre será imposible de dejar. Hablamos de alta literatura y sus temas son densos, pero son de lo más legible gracias a su voz hipnótica y su estilo original.

Essay: Notes on Second Language Acquisition

Verbal communication is supposedly made up of three elements, only one of which is concerned with actual language.  It is said that 40 per cent of communication is verbal, leaving the other 60 per cent down to context and non-verbal communication equally.  However, when attempting to learn a new language, or to live in another country where you are not fluent in the language, it certainly doesn´t always feel like you are already 60 per cent of the way there just by the pure coincidence of you existing.

When further back on my own language-learning journey, during holidays in Spain, I would strain to pick up fragments of conversation on the street, perhaps congratulating myself a little too much and too readily if I correctly identified and understood the odd word.  Equally, I would be easily slung back into despondency when, instead of hearing a Spanish voice, I would hear an English one, and the ease, the literal lack of thought or need for translation in order for me to understand the words, would make me despair at the length at which I had yet to go in order to be able to do that in another a language: the ability to just absorb it, without thought, almost like white noise.

However, since moving to Madrid three months ago, I have realised that often what reaches up and strikes the brain like a language bullet isn´t always the language itself: it is the tone, or the cadence that pricks your ear before the actual words do.  It isn’t just what a Spanish, or an English person is saying that reaches you translated or untranslated, it is the way they are saying it.  Interestingly, what bought me to this conclusion was hearing English being spoken by native Spanish speakers.  I would listen to the words; individually, collectively, to the accent and wonder why – when it was perfect English spoken correctly and with a clear enough accent – it still sounded off, wrong.  I realised that it was because it was English being spoken with a Spanish tone and cadence that made it sound slightly out of tune.

In music there is a technique called ´harmonics´, which describes when the same chord is played on a guitar, but with different strings: it is the same chord, therefore the same note, but somehow sounds different.  This describes perfectly the use of language by a non-native speaker – the words are all there in the correct order, nothing is wrong, yet it sounds unnatural.  This has led me to the conclusion that chiming and mimicry are just as important when learning a new langauge, or attempting to blend in in a new country, as language, context and non verbal communication.  If you can say peeeeero, dragging out the E instead of pero, with the more English sounding emphasis on the P, what comes next will somehow blend and sound more natural even if it is incorrect, and the same is true in reverse.  This is still an experiment in progress, but it seems to hold true so far.

In addition to chiming and mimicry, confidence, or the confidence to mimic (pretended confidence or otherwise), all combine as powerful tools to assist with second language acquisition, tools just as important as drilling grammar.  That, as well as remembering to celebrate our difference.  For example, I find myself adding a gerund to a Spanish verb for describing my actions: I like to speak of salir-ing for going out and subir-ing from the Metro and I somehow find it much more efficient and descriptive than the correct English.  Similarly, my sister and I have developed a language of our own which is part English, part Spanish and part shared references, which I refuse to see as debasing and instead as creative and interesting.  The experiment continues…

Essay: Thoughts on Translation

I’m way in over my head here, but these are some of the issues that, although I don’t fully understand, interest me very much and I wanted to collect my thoughts in one place in until such a time that I can do them justice!

Language is a lubricous concept and nothing illuminates that like the gaps, as well as the additions – the absences and presences – that are created when translating one language into another.  It is from here that many of the biggest questions asked by linguistics and language philosophy take flight.  Even when one is monolingual, translations still take place, such as the alchemy of selecting one word over another and the subtle differences created according to which is chosen.


In the novel, Leaving the Atocha Station – a book in part about the gaps between languages where meaning is recreated – the protagonist, Adam attends a poetry reading in Madrid where he expects to understand little of the Spanish poems to be read.  In fact, the opposite occurs:

To my surprise this poem was totally intelligible to me, an Esperanto of clichés: wave, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody.  But then he read his second poem, “Distance”: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc.

The short phrase ‘an Esperanto of clichés’ succinctly and cleverly conveys a vast amount about the philosophy of language, namely that Adam does not need a masterful command of the Spanish language – or an English translation – to be able to understand the poems, as the subject matter – the thing created by the very arrangement of the words themselves – is so universally banal as to surpass the Otherness and become easy to comprehend.  This poses questions, amongst many others, about the arbitrary nature of language and whether words, as merely signs, convey any meaning on their own, or whether that meaning is imported by the listener.

In addition, the intangible idea of voice can often play a more important role than the actual language being employed to give life to that voice.  For example, for a native English speaker who speaks Spanish as a second language, an English or American voice can be easier to read in translation than an original text in Spanish.  This can apply in the reverse too, making an original text in Spanish translated into English harder to read than an original text written in English and translated into Spanish.   For example, a British/American reader may find the Postmodern school and the themes of anxiety and dislocation more relevant than the Magic Realism of Marquéz.  This places concepts such as national identity and cultural values above the actual language being used to express such concepts, meaning that whatever the reader brings to a novel potentially has more sway over the enjoyment and comprehension of the story, than does language.


Regarding the literal translation of a novel from one language to another, one would usually expect ‘like for like’ in terms of style, yet there is often unexpected, extra beauty to be found.  Unexpected in the sense that, for example, a celebrated author and her book would expect a translation of her work to be faithfully rendered, but sometimes the translation can surpass the original, as well as – more often than the latter – fall short. Two examples from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides arguably illustrate this point.  A beautiful evocation of Eliot through the mouth of a detoxifying Trip Fontaine, yet recalling clearly and painfully years later, the unfathomable Lux Lisbon, reads in the original thus:

“She was the still point of the turning world.” he told us, quoting Eliot, whose Collected Poems he had found on the shelf of the detoxification centre.

It could be argued that the Spanish translation loses some of the beauty of Eliot and Eugenides’ words, feeling more dutifully descriptive than transcendent:

Fue el punto fijo de un mundo que giraba – nos dijo, citando a Eliot, cuyos Poemas completos había encontrado en la biblioteca del centro de desintoxicación.

In addition, Lux’s goodbye to Trip after their first clandestine encounter is snappy and full of meaning:

I gotta get back before bedcheck.

However, the Spanish equivalent translates very literally and in doing so loses some of the nuance of the original:

Tengo que volver antes de que se den cuenta de que no estoy en la cama.

I have to get back before they notice I’m not in bed.

However, during the same novel, it could be argued that the use of onomatopoeia and the musicality of the alliteration in the Spanish translation has something of the edge over the original:

Pertenecían al tipo de las que llevan pendientes de esos que tintinean, las puntas del cabello decoloradas y zapatos con tacón de corcho sujetos con tiras en los tobillas.

They were the jangly-earring type, with hair bleached at the fringes and cork-heeled shoes that tied around their ankles.


There is also the place where languages overlap and bleed into one another. This occurs regularly in the case of countries that have minority-majority languages, such as Spanish in North America.  Here, the two languages combine to create a hybrid where meaning and new ways of expression are replete.

For example, the requisition of an English verb (often slang, or a neologism) that is then remade for the Spanish tongue and language structure, such as the Spanish ‘Hanguear’ which takes the American-English, ‘to hang out’ and recreates it for Spanish using the verb root from the original and adding a Spanish verb ending to make the infinitive.  The ‘gue’ sound also ensures that it trips easily off a native Spanish tongue.  In the reverse, there are many examples of American-English being influenced by Spanish, such as the Spanish second person plural verb conjugation which doesn’t exist in English, used to refer to ‘you’ in the plural, which has been neatly appropriated by American-English to become, ‘y’all’:

Tomáis una copa? / Y’all want a drink?

Such innovations in language use illustrate why, as Marina Warner wrote in a newspaper article entitled, English That’s Good Enough, perhaps fluency in another language shouldn’t be a learner’s goal, as non-native speakers bring new and interesting perspectives and evolve language-use:

Many of my students are non-native English speakers.  Although they speak English well you couldn’t say they are fluent.  Most of them have more than a smattering, but the task of writing imaginatively in English demands that they push themselves hard to capture on the page what they are seeing in their mind’s eye.  But the results are often strikingly vivid.  There are gains from not knowing a language as one’s mother tongue – as Samuel Beckett realised when he set aside English and chose to write in French.


To conclude, language – being a living, fluid thing – will continue to proliferate and to generate questions as a result, especially in an increasingly globalised world where languages will naturally pollinate and thus create yet more questions that arguably go to the very heart of who we are and the world we live in.

‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner (2011)

In April this year, I spent a month in Madrid with my sister. Before leaving, reading about Madrid figured heavily in the preparation, and there could not have been a more perfect novel to have discovered and read than, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.


The novel is the semi-autobiographical story of Adam Gordon, a talented young poet on a prestigious year-long scholarship in Madrid (Lerner himself was also a Fulbright scholar in Madrid). Ostensibly, the novel covers Adam’s progress through his scholarship; attempting to become fluent in Spanish and keep on track with his academic project, whilst smoking a lot of weed and managing a mental illness. His scholarship, and the novel, culminate around the 2003 attack on Madrid’s Atocha station. Since its publication, the bildungsroman has bought Lerner many accolades and prizes, and also earned him comparisons to Hemingway.


I felt two very particular things when I read it: one, that it is a really brilliant work of art and two, that I was lucky to have had an experience of reading it – one that I’m not sure I’ve ever had before – whereby I felt the novel was written especially for me, in the sense of, for me to have found and read it at that specific point in my life, felt miraculous. The novel fully inhabited me and in particular the theme of alienation resultant from having a kind of a ‘half-of’ a second-language.

My own experience of learning Spanish has been one of many highs and lows, setting it apart from any other learning I have ever done. Thinking of all those words; verbs, conjunctions, grammatical idiosyncrasies, all the ever-moving slang, stretching out, unlearned before me, makes me feel wretched. Then, if I manage to dash off a sentence, in speech or written down, without having to think about it, I feel elated.


Navigating the space between slippery, wriggling things like languages, seems to me to be where the pleasure and the pain of the learning lies. The joy comes from momentarily vanquishing the gap, creating a bridge between one language and another. The pain, from feeling utterly lost within it. Throughout Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner returns again and again to this theme, describing the act of hopeful listening perfectly, and at times – when not feeling that his lack of language is a source of humiliation – he raises these spaces between languages higher than merely a lack of communication, and into a new world of expression:


I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.


However, no matter how beautifully explored, it seems to me there is something heartbreaking about this gap, about the knowledge that no matter what effort one makes, and even if fluency is attained, as an outsider you will never fully be assimilated into a foreign country and its language. In the novel, the character of Teresa came to represent the whole of Spain for me. In reading, I extrapolated out Teresa’s grace (‘where did they learn to smile like that?’), as described by Adam, to become my view of the Spanish nation. To me, all Spaniards now appeared to have her grace and ease, the cities, too, all became elegant and effortless, and to realise that I’ll only be ever able to say that objectively, and never to feel it within my own self, saddened me a little.


When the day finally came for me to leave for Madrid though, all I felt was excitement. My sister and I bought Leaving the Atocha Station along with us, as we wanted to remember and visit some of the places mentioned in it. However, somewhere along the line, this love of the novel became an experiment in psychogeography, or to put it another way: literary stalking. We began to follow Ben/Adam around Madrid and in doing so, came to feel as if we had a friend alongside us, sharing in our own experience, our own alienation and joy, just as we had his.


The first thing we were keen to find was a particular painting in the Prado, one of Madrid’s ‘big three’ galleries. The first pages of the novel describe the importance of the Prado during the first phase of Adam’s scholarship and this was this reason we wanted to visit:


From my apartment I would walk down Calle de las Huertas, nodding to the street cleaners in their lime-green jumpsuits, cross El Paseo del Prado, enter the museum, which was only a couple of euros with my international student id, and proceed directly to room 58, where I positioned myself in front of Roger Van de Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I was usually standing before the painting within forty-five minutes of waking and so the hash and caffeine and the sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium.


After some wrangling with the Prado’s vast floor plan, we were able to seek it out. I don’t really know why I felt the way I did, and I don’t know what to compare it to either, but I was moved. I felt nervous, I got goosebumps and – although there were many other tourists in the room – I felt like me and my sister were totally alone with the painting. I enjoyed a secret thrill that no-one else (certainly not those with audio-guides strapped to their heads) would be able to guess our reason for being there and neither would they be there for the same purpose (I assumed). We even risked serious reprimand from the keen security staff to take a picture of each of us looking at the painting in a simulation of the opening pages of the novel.


Other trips included finding the book shop where Adam buys the notepads on which to record the poems he is there to write for his scholarship and trying (and failing) to search for, ‘a mixed bar with Moroccan decor and sequinned cushions’ in the Chueca area of Madrid.  The novel also describes the cafe where Adam has lunch after his daily trips to the Prado, which we did manage to find.


However, apart from the Prado, our main focus was the Plaza Santa Ana. This is where Adam’s apartment appeared to have been located and a description of him climbing out of his skylight onto the roof in order to look down on the plaza opens the novel.  We sat in the plaza over many evenings trying to decide which attic window might have been his, I was of the opinion that it was on the south side, where I could see a small bit of grating around a window, whereas my sister thought that it was at the top of the building which houses the ever-photographed Santa Ana Cervezaría (on the north side), but all this was nothing but conjecture.


Finally – somehow – this following of Lerner’s shadow around the city began to gather around an idea: to write to him.  An internet search turned up his agent’s name, then, on a long, hot drive home from a weekend in La Rioja, we began drafting the letter.  At first we didn’t know why we were writing, we certainly wanted to thank him for the novel and to express our deep admiration for his work, but as we wrote, we started to feel we had to know exactly where he had lived, it was the place we wanted to find the most.  By the time we arrived back in Madrid, the letter was done.  This is what we wrote:




Our names are Jayne and Amy.  We are sisters, and we are writing to you from a cafe in La Latina, Madrid.  We are here for one month to improve our Spanish … amongst other things.  It’s a trip that we have been planning for a long time. 


We discovered Leaving the Atocha Station through reading your poetry in Granta magazine and it couldn’t have been a more perfect find.  Your book has become our touchstone – reading about Adam was how we imagined it might feel to be a “guiri” in Madrid attempting to become competent in a second language, and the alienation and humiliation associated with it (particularly given that we rather fancy ourselves as being lovers of language who value depth of expression and breadth of vocabulary) It turns out that you, and we, were right!


We bought a copy of your book with us and we have been using it as a psychogeographic guide to Madrid – or to put it another way we have been following Adam’s shadow around like stalkers.


Whilst we have smoked less weed than Adam, we have managed to cover quite a lot of the same ground: Salamanca, Atocha station, Casa de Libros (where there was a paucity of notepads), a cocktail at the Ritz, and we searched for a Moroccan style bar with sequinned cushions in Chueca with no luck.  The closest we have felt to your story has been at El Rincón on the Calle del Prado (see attached photo – has it changed?), and at the Prado, standing in front of the “Descent from the Cross” where we both had a “profound experience of art” complete with goose bumps and fluttery stomachs which had little to do with the painting and everything to do with your novel.  We also braved the admonishments of zealous security guards to take the attached photo.


Finally, a Madrileño friend suggested a nice spot for a drink would be the roof terrace bar of the big white hotel on one of the corners of the Plaza Santa Ana.  He won’t have guessed why we were so enthused at his suggestion: we think it will be the perfect place from which to try and spot Adam’s skylight.  We’ve been to the square several times and haven’t been able to agree on which building it might be.  Having read about you and finding that you were a Fulbright scholar in Madrid we’ve made the assumption that the flat in the Plaza Santa Ana is real, so our question is: would you help us out by giving us the address so that we can complete our odyssey?


We hope to hear from you, and thank you again for the book.


Amy & Jayne

We hardly expected a reply – although dearly hoped for one – but, unbelievably, by the next afternoon, Lerner’s agent had already written back. We could not have been more excited, or surprised, or bewildered. We felt closer than ever to Ben/Adam. Once we read her response, complete with the requested address, we went straight out to find it. She then replied again a few hours later with a photo of Lerner in the Prado, positioned in front of the Descent from the Cross, saying simply, ‘Ben thought you might like this’. We did, a lot.

We thought this was the (wonderful) end to the story, but actually the novel wasn’t done with us yet. On our penultimate day in Madrid, wandering lazily home and wanting to make the most of the last 48 hours, we found ourselves in a book shop we hadn’t seen before. Almost the first book we saw on entering was, ‘Saliendo de la Estación de Atocha’ – the Spanish translation of Leaving the Atocha Station. We hadn’t known it had come out in translation, as all the Spaniards we had met and mentioned the novel to had not heard of it. We bought all three copies on the shelf. Now, home, after a life-changing month, I feel that finding the novel in Spanish has bought the experience and my relationship with this book full circle. I am now reading about Adam, learning about Spain and Spanish and Spaniards, in Spanish.